Multiple climatic and socioeconomic drivers have come in recent years to interfere with the ability of Alaska’s ‘bush’ communities to achieve food security with locally available food resources. Livelihoods traditionally centered on the harvest of wild, country foods,
are transitioning to a cash economy, with increasing reliance on industrially produced,
store-bought foods. While commercially available foods provide one measure of food security, availability and quality of these foods is subject to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of a global food system: access is dependent on one’s ability to pay; most importantly, perhaps these foods often do not fulfill many of the roles that country foods have played in these communities and cultures. This transition is having severe consequences for the health of people and viability of rural communities, yet in ways not always tracked by conventional food security methodologies and frameworks. This project investigated community-gardening programs that have emerged in some rural Alaska communities in response to these food insecurities. What we found was that communities are mixing a widely unknown tradition of small-scale gardening with innovative new community-based designs to develop solutions to these food security problems. However, some communities remain constrained from fully developing these programs by institutionalized definitions of ‘Alaska Native’ culture.
Global environmental change is already having dramatic effects on the people and
places of the north. New environmental trends such as the retreat of seasonal sea ice,
landscape drying, and unprecedented shifts in the changing of the seasons and the timing
of animal migrations, are just a few examples of the problematic environmental changes
being experienced. In rural Alaska, for example, where household livelihoods and community food systems are tightly connected to climate,
weather, and the landscape, these new environmental conditions are interacting with
other contemporary drivers of environmental and socioeconomic change such as
industrial lands development and oil, gas, and minerals mining, to significantly constrain
the use of locally available wild fish and game resources. To maintain some measure of food security, many households are transitioning
away from reliance on the seasonal harvests of wild foods to the consumption of
imported, store-bought foods. But in a global
context of rising food and fuel prices, the costs and challenges of living in rural Alaska
are on the rise and the loss of wild food options has ramifications not just for the
pocketbook, but for individual health and community viability.
Many Native communities are beginning new community gardens, or other community-supported agriculture projects, as one innovative response to these food security problems. This project set out to learn more about the projects, their history in the state, and the challenges that they face given Alaska’s unique agricultural history and character.
The objectives of this project were as follows. First, we wanted to gain an ethnographic understanding of these new gardening initiatives. This includes understanding where the idea for gardening originated, how well the projects are accepted by the community (buy-in and involvement), and what factors, both social and ecological, influence project success.
To achieve these objectives, Loring undertook a variety of mixed methods. Archive research was performed at the University of Alaska and the US National Archives in Anchorage to learn more about the history of gardening by these communities. Participant observation and semi-directed interviews were used to learn about both past gardening and the ongoing new projects. A prototype food asset survey instrument was tested in one community. As a part of the participant observation, a test garden was also cultivated for two seasons at the primary site.
Many Native communities also experimented with gardening, complementing their wild food harvests with gardens of vegetables such as potatoes, rutabagas and turnips. As early as the turn of the 20th century, communities in the Yukon Flats Region of Alaska, a vast wetlands basin bounded roughly by the Yukon and Tanana rivers, were experimenting with integrating outpost agriculture into their seasonal round of
subsistence activities. In cooperation with agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Alaska Native Service (ANS), and the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, these communities planted school, family and community gardens, and attempted to develop strategies for planting and garden
management that could complement the timing of the spring trapping season, the summer
fishing season, and the fall hunt.
However, BIA and ANS officials were in general frustrated by the lack of a progressive transition in these communities toward agriculture as a primary subsistence
activity, and as such they considered their garden outreach programs to be a failure. Thus,
this gardening history has been labeled ‘failed development’ by many of its contemporaries, and has either been ignored or described as little more than ‘culture change’ by social scientists since.
Though these gardens never quite lived up to the narrative of economic development pursued by the BIA, there is extensive evidence that they were effectively used to fill an important niche in local foodways, contributing an additional measure of economic diversity and therefore resilience to these communities. True, neither these communities nor their gardens fit the archetype of agriculturalists, but records for the region indicate that communities had been consistently cultivating gardens off and on
since the turn of the century. When asked about life during the early to middle 1900s,
many elders speak fondly about their gardens, recalling time spent with their elders tending to planting and harvesting activities. Indeed potatoes, turnips, and rutabagas, none of which are native to Alaska, are all considered ‘traditional’ foods in the recipes and
menus of the Athabascan potlatch ceremony and favorite home dishes. Understanding the historical importance of these gardens helps us to come to terms with the notion that flexibility and diversity are perhaps far more appropriate benchmarks of what is truly
“customary and traditional” for these communities, who unfortunately remain locked in
to old definitions and stereotypes of hunter-gatherers.
Indeed the Alaska Native communities of the Yukon Circle saw great potential in crop cultivation, and experimented with new and different ways to incorporate the practice into their subsistence strategies and general food system. Though it could not, in either the short or the long term, follow the same developmental path that agriculture had in the lower 48, it could and did meet more “down-to-earth and specific objectives,” as a flexible, supplementary, stabilizing activity that could be easily and informally integrated with the existing local economies. The variability of
participation in gardening was not an indicator of failure, but characteristic of a process
of experimentation that happened outside the dominant narrative of economic development. Cropping was part of a larger picture, incorporated within a set of strategies
that valued diversity over economic growth and followed not just a yearly set of activities
but also multi-year and, in some cases, multi-decadal ecological and climatic cycles. Though the gardening programs did not initiate a radical transformation of lifestyle for these Native communities, gardens were indeed being integrated into the communities’ subsistence strategies, albeit in a nonlinear way that reflected knowledge, awareness and responsiveness to these ecosystem
Educational & Outreach Activities
In Press P.A. Loring and S.C. Gerlach. Food, Culture, and Human Health in Alaska: An integrative health approach to food security. Environmental Science and Policy
2008 P.A. Loring, F.S. Chapin III and S.C. Gerlach. The Services-Oriented Architecture: Ecosystem services as a framework for the diagnosis of outcomes in Social Ecological Systems. Ecosystems. In Press
2007 Daniel White, S.C. Gerlach and Amy C. Tidwell and P.A. Loring. Surface water, arctic peoples, and ecosystems in a changing climate. Environmental Research Letters 2:4
In Review P.A. Loring and S.C. Gerlach. Outpost Agriculture: Food System Innovation in Rural Alaskan Communities. Ethnohistory
In Review P. Loring, SC Gerlach, L. Duffy, A. Wernham, and J. Lewis. Social Epidemiology and Climate Change: Towards an Integrated Approach to Assessing Health Impacts. for Environmental Health Perspectives.
2007, 2008 Outpost Agriculture. A recurring monthly column about agriculture and food in The Ester Republic, a local alternative news-magazine.
2007 The Fireweed. A multi-topic weblog located at http://www.thefireweed.com
2008 Social Epidemiology and Climate Change. 2008 AAAS Arctic, Fairbanks, AK.
2008 Coming into the Foodshed 2008 AAAS Arctic, Fairbanks, AK
2008 Climate change, surface water, and food security in Alaska. 2008 International Conference on Food Security, Oxford, England.
2008 Scale and food system resilience. A speed talk given at Resilience 2008, Stockholm
2008 Coming to terms with the future of Northern Food Systems. Contributing author to a plenary given at the 2008 Arctic Forum, Washington DC. Presented by S.C. Gerlach
2008 Large Scale Changes, Small-Scale Livelihoods. A Poster displayed at the 2008 Arctic Forum, Washington DC. With S.C. Gerlach and T. Paragi
2007 The Impacts of Climate Change on Rural Food Systems and Health. Presentation made to the 2007 Alaska Health Summit. Anchorage, AK.
2007 Country Foods, Health and Nutrition in Changing Alaskan Ecosystems. Presentation made to the 2nd annual Alaska Biomedical Conference, Fairbanks, AK
2007 Outpost Gardening in Interior Alaska. Paper presented at the 2007 meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Fairbanks, AK.
2007 Climate Change and Rural Alaskan Food Systems. A poster displayed at the 2007 Alaska Forum on the Environment, Anchorage AK.
In response to the many difficult new challenges to rural community food security, many are implementing new food system innovations. For instance the communities of Fort Yukon and Minto are collaborating with researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the UAF Cooperative Extension service to develop community-supported gardening initiatives rooted in sustainable community health plans. Community members see this as a workable option that strengthens an existing but understated gardening tradition that is present up and down the Yukon River, one that expands the definition of subsistence to include an emphasis on the whole food system rather than just one piece of it. This initiative, which incorporates greenhouse, wild-botanical resources cultivation, and food storage components, provides an alternative to foods available in the village store, and will allow people to control at least some local food production. The availability of higher quality and more nutritious locally grown food is the most immediate payoff for the local community. There has also been some discussion of small-scale production of potatoes and other similar cold-resistant crops for distribution and sale to Fairbanks and other larger Alaskan communities, with control being managed by a combination of individual and corporate enterprise, and/or with new marketing cooperatives that are locally constituted and controlled.
In time, more local control of food and products such as these that are grown and produced in healthy, sustainable ways, and where “ownership” is vested within the local community, will provide, through self-reliance, an enhanced capacity to deal with change, as well as contribute to a reduction in vulnerabilities to the vagaries of the global marketplace. That there is no word in the local Athabascan languages for ‘sustainability’ is interesting; that there are several words for ‘self-reliance’ reflects a world view that can easily be incorporated into a culturally appropriate and modern blueprint for the future. The wild food harvest must be protected and encouraged, even as rural Alaskans are seeking new ways to enhance a more dependable and affordable food supply, integrating diet and health with sustainable community design, through innovating initiatives such as village gardening and other non- and for-profit crop and non-timber forest resource cultivation.
Locals consider local sources of food to be important for multiple reasons, and identify local food production as an excellent example of how to (re)build regional community networks. In view of the impossibility of turning back the clock and fully restoring an earlier food system, what is the alternative for rural residents and communities who seek to enhance community security and self reliance? And what is our role, as resource managers, state regulators, researchers and extension agents? While I do not propose to have the authority to speak for rural people or local communities, my colleagues and I do have the ability to work with them as facilitators in positive, collaborative ways to help craft innovative solutions to commonly shared problems. By enabling local decision making and experimentation with whatever resources we can bring to bear, academics and other agencies can support communities and their cultural values by allowing action to take place within a local cultural context and allowing people to address equity on a local scale, which contributes to local specialization and local knowledge and fuels innovation from within; the process of trial and error, though it may result in 10 failures for each success, builds knowledge, expertise, and confidence at every step.
Areas needing additional study
Downscale investigations of food assets and food insecurity from community to community are necessary. What is reaching the plate, what people are going without as they cope with food shortage, all of these need further review. Further study on the economic aspects of community food production is necessary, including the costs of importing materials and supplies, the productvity of using food scraps such as fish waste for fertilizer, and so forth.